Visual Art

Diane Arbus’s intimate portraits are the work of a transgressive artist seeking to portray the almost invisible human truth. By Patrick Hartigan.

Diane Arbus: American Portraits

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In the picture, the man stares back, his eyes lazy with satisfaction. His moustache sits as heavy as his brows, his fingers clubbed with dwarfism. He is naked but for a towel and hat, his arm slung up over the nightstand, a bottle of liquor wedged behind it.

The artless economy of mugshots speaks engagingly to the aspirations of more artistic forms of portraiture. Free of aesthetic editorialising and the intent of a knowing composer, these images, portraying subjects who have literally been “captured”, their “shooting” just an exercise in bookkeeping, have something of the immediacy and authenticity for which artists and social documentarians strive. What mugshots lack is complexity between “taker” and “taken” – they emerge and achieve their precision from a context of normative codes and restrictions that also robs them of a far more interesting and slippery power imbalance. I’m speaking here of the relationship between the hungry and self-conscious artist and the ambivalent other they wish to devour.

In profound examples of such exchanges, human subjects stare at the photographer, then the viewer, with the cautious longing and startled questioning of prey: what is becoming of me through this seemingly benign trigger and void? Diane Arbus, in relentless pursuit of human prey, captured many such moments. The dwarf, though, refuses this. His look is a conspiracy of knowing.

Arbus, the daughter of wealthy Jewish parents who ran a popular New York department store, was born Diane Nemerov in 1923. At the age of 14 she fell in love with Allan Arbus, the nephew of one of her father’s business partners, and married him four years later. The couple entered photography together: from a darkroom set up in their Manhattan apartment they established a fashion advertising business with the help of Diane’s father’s contacts in the industry.

After a decade or so, by then a mother of two children and separated from Allan, Arbus went in search of livelier interactions. Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank and other documentary photographers, Arbus yearned to be an artist. Looking at her work it is hard not to also think of the German photographer August Sander, whose unsentimental portraits capture the persistent abstruseness of photography. These portraits, according to Sander, always grant the viewer something between “cruel accuracy” and “outrageous” deception.

Diane Arbus: American Portraits, showing at the National Gallery of Australia until October 30, brings together a collection of 36 photographs, all hand-printed by the artist. Purchased in 1980-81 under the astute directorship of James Mollison, when so many of the significant holdings in the NGA collection were gathered, it amounts to one of the most significant collections of her work outside of America. The exhibition, curated by Anne O’Hehir, seeks to contextualise Arbus among contemporaries and relevant figures such as Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand and Lisette Model. The grouping demonstrates the particular intensity of Arbus’s portraits and how they were strengthened when she abandoned her 35-millimetre camera – a device whose viewfinder meant she had to obstruct her own face when shooting others – to medium-format photography, a decoy that allowed her to hold the gaze of her prey. Arbus once said, “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do … When I first did it, I felt very perverse.”

Despite so much of photography’s history amounting to a freak show, its project tied up with classification, Arbus’s work has drawn special attention when it comes to discussions around the ethics of documentary photography. Susan Sontag, for example, described her portraits as “anti-humanist”. Meanwhile, Arbus’s own sexual proclivities and exceptional circumstances – a new biography by Arthur Lubow grants fresh insights into her nymphomania, the incestuous relationship she had with her brother and the affair her daughter, Doon, had with Arbus’s partner, Marvin Israel – would seem, in part, to be what drew her towards the marginalised lives of her “freaks”. What Sontag’s assessment doesn’t appear to have acknowledged is the way we are drawn so very, very close to Arbus’s human peculiarities, almost uncomfortably so. The thick air of sex in Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, N.Y.C. 1970, for instance, almost brings the smell of semen to one’s nose. In her relatively short career, Arbus very quickly shifted away from touristic voyeurism – bodybuilders and strippers in their backstage rooms – towards affairs of much greater ambiguity and intimacy.

And yet it’s not simply a case of getting physically closer to her subjects, as A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970 shows. I recall seeing, as an eight-year-old, this image in the Guinness Book of Records. Despite my horror I remember returning again and again to the page. Could someone really be that big? I asked myself with fear bordering on disgust. Viewing the print in the National Gallery brought me into contact with stage details to which I hadn’t previously paid attention, that all presumably add to the surrealness of this image: the stain on the giant’s mother’s dress, the businesslike role of both parents, the size and placement of the giant’s walking stick, the cracks in the plaster above the giant’s head.

The “outrageously deceptive” action referred to by Sander relates to the severe abbreviation performed by a photographic image: we only receive one very thin slice of time, one moment of “cruel accuracy” to represent the gigantic tragedy of a human life. It was interesting to finally learn more about Eddie Carmel, the 8'9" (267 centimetre) man in Arbus’s photo. Apparently while being photographed Eddie remarked, “It’s hard having parents who are midgets.” He would become a comedian before dying at the age of 36, his heart giving out under the pressure of so much body mass.

Sanders’ “accuracy” doesn’t relate to eyewitness testimony; photography abandons the crude truths of eyes in pursuit of new, untold ones – those that mysteriously appear only to, and perhaps because of, the slivers of light opened up by the apparatus. This might be precisely what Arbus claimed to be searching for: “The space between who someone is and who they think they are.” That’s the ambivalence, the overriding but almost invisible human truth, that speaks to the viewer so intently.

In my mind Boy with a Straw Hat Walking to a March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C. 1967, a deadpan portrait of a teenage boy wearing a small round badge printed with the words “Bomb Hanoi”, expresses this most powerfully. In his gaze we encounter what Philip Larkin called the “shallow violent eyes” of youth, but also questioning – an unmistakable moment of depth, vulnerability and compassion. In her search for these very decisive moments, Diane Arbus would spend hours, days, sometimes years – 10 in the case of Eddie – waiting for the light to emerge.

Before taking her life in 1971, Arbus was suffering from the same bouts of depression that had paralysed her mother in their high-rise apartment on Central Park West. Arbus, however, had made it onto the street, away from the protected surrounds of her childhood. She was well and truly in the thick of the jungle, but it didn’t matter. “Energy,” she wrote to a friend in 1968. “Some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.”

Through the lens of her medium-format box, positioned somewhere near her heart, Arbus sucked humanity into her with the desperate hope of filling a more personal void. Arbus was a vampire, the contact offered by her human specimens her lifeblood. It was the ferocity, complexity and desperation of her hunger that simultaneously instated and dissolved the dividing line between taker and taken, thereby releasing the gaps and contradictions held captive in us all.


1 . Arts diary

• VISUAL ART  Painting. More Painting
ACCA, Melbourne, chapter one until August 28, chapter two September 2-25

• LITERATURE  Byron Writers Festival
Arts and Industry Estate, Byron Bay, August 5-7

Various venues, Ulverstone, Tasmania, August 12-14

• VARIOUS  Darwin Festival
Various venues, Darwin, August 4-21

• THEATRE  Winyanboga Yurringa
Carriageworks, Sydney, August 3-6

Last chance

• INSTALLATION  Judy Watson: The Scarifier
Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria, until July 31

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Voyeur lighting".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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